Lydia Ko of New Zealand follows her shot after playing on the second hole during the second round of the Evian Championship women’s golf tournament in Evian, eastern France, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
Photograph by: (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
A Russian sportswriter once surveyed the field of female athletes at a world figure skating championship and declared that there was one thing the sport loved above all else.
“Fresh meat,” she said.
It might have been 1993, the year Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul won the title, in Prague. She was sprightly, dreamlike, just a couple of months past her 15th birthday, and when she followed up with an Olympic gold medal the next year in Lillehammer, the world was her oyster. Or might have been.
She turned professional, signing with the William Morris Agency at 16. Three years later, plagued by injuries and unable to do the jumps, she was dropped from the Champions On Ice tour over concerns about her drinking, and she finally checked into rehab. Her life story — she is 35 now — is a cautionary tale of too much, too soon, with a series of postscripts involving infrequent skating gigs, money problems and lawsuits.
After Baiul, there was 14-year-old American world champion Tara Lipinski, who also won the 1998 Olympic gold medal at 15 and promptly “joined the circus,” which was what we used to call the pro skating circuit. At 19, hampered by hip surgeries, she was pretty much all washed up.
But professional sports never stops looking for fresh meat, and vice versa. It is, in fact, what makes the world go round, the continual infusion of gifted youth to replace the aging stars who fade out at the other end of sport’s compressed life cycle.
And so, it is Lydia Ko’s turn to join the circus.
You remember Lydia Ko, the precocious, bespectacled Korean-born, New Zealand-raised amateur who came over in 2012, got herself an accomplished club member as a caddy to help guide her around the steep hills and sloped greens of Vancouver Golf Club — and turned the Ladies Professional Golf Association on its ear by beating the world’s best females to win the CN Canadian Women’s Open … at age 15.
And then followed up by repeating the formula and successfully defending that title this past summer at Edmonton’s Royal Mayfair, beating all the same American and European stars who, the week before, had battled it out on international TV in the Solheim Cup.
Showing an eerie composure and total command of her game, she not only proved the first Canadian Open title was no fluke, she underlined her potential dominance by finishing runner-up to Suzann Pettersen in the LPGA season’s final major, the Evian Championship.
Altogether, by maintaining her amateur status, she has left nearly a million dollars in prize money on the table — or more accurately, left it for the women she beat to inherit.
Perhaps that figure, as it mounted, finally made her parents shake their heads and say: “Enough.”
More likely, Ko herself is growing restless, knowing she has the game and the head to win at the highest level of women’s golf, and not wanting to waste any more prime time.
So now, together, they’ve made the decision that Lydia will play as a pro in next month’s LPGA season wrapup, the CME Group Titleholders, and might make her pro debut the week before at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational.
And it is up to LPGA Tour commissioner Mike Whan to decide whether to grant her an age exemption to become a full-time member of the big tour before her 18th birthday.
The tour is being coy, saying Whan is pondering the issue and will rule on it when he returns from Asia, but realistically, there is no decision to make. If Ko is already better than most of the players under his umbrella — and she is ranked No. 5 in the world — how can he refuse?
It’s all very well for the commissioner to enunciate the pitfalls, and he has. But a Tour that has previously granted status to underage phenoms like Morgan Pressel and Lexi Thompson can hardly refuse a certifiable star who’s already won four professional tournaments including her own national open and Canada’s, twice!
Whan is right to point out that it’s not all about whether Ko is ready to play and win, but also about where the line is drawn for the next wave of kids, younger all the time, arriving at the Tour’s door and wanting in.
“At the real core of it, I didn’t think I wanted to be the commissioner that created a new pathway to the LPGA that made young girls around the world think that as a freshman or sophomore in high school that they have a big decision to make,” Whan told GolfChannel.com, at the time of the Lexi Thompson petition. “I didn’t want to create this worldwide phenomenon where 14 year-olds are sitting in their living room and thinking, ‘High school or pro?’ It didn’t feel like the right thing to do.”
And if that’s the overriding concern, it’s probably a valid one.
But those who argue that Lydia Ko ought to be enjoying her teen years like an ordinary kid, and experiencing the joys of college before moving irretrievably into the adult world of hard-case pro golfers and money are missing the fact that she is not, and probably never has been, ordinary.
Her family moved to New Zealand when she was six and plunked her in golf classes in Auckland. They have guided her closely, watched over her, and she has emerged a finished product, smart and polite, without that sense of entitlement that plenty of child prodigies acquire.
When she won at the Mayfair this year, she said: “I don’t care (about the money). I don’t care. I know I’m not going to get the money, so I don’t really care.
“I’ve got some people above me like my mom and dad. They’re the boss. They are going to help me to make the right decision and to turn pro at what time. I’m only 16 still, it’s quite hard to make huge decisions. When I turn pro it’s like a job.”
But now that time has come, and her parents know it, and no LPGA commissioner — even for the noblest of reasons — is about to deny her.
“She should’ve turned pro a year ago!” Cristie Kerr, who was herself a teenage star, wrote on Twitter.
“Strike while the iron is hot,” said England’s Laura Davies, who also won the Canadian Women’s Open in Edmonton, when it was a major championship known as the du Maurier Classic, in 1996.
Yes, there are object lessons abounding of supposed can’t-fail teens who never realized the expectations they created at an early age: Michelle Wie, the obvious one. But if she’s the best example of The Big Miss, her bank account says otherwise.
For Lydia Ko, the job is upon her, and it’s time she got paid for it. Time she joined the circus. The lionesses better keep their heads up.
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